I was expecting to really, really love this book, but as it turns out, I feel that I can only give it three stars and half.
Everything about this book should be fantastic. It’s about a young girl called Ida Mae, who has wanted to fly ever since her father took her up in his Jenny when she was little. Her chance comes as World War Two takes hold of the country, and she’s suddenly shoved out of her comfortable home life in Slidell, Louisana, and into the WASP training field in Sweetwater. But what does this mean for Ida? She’s a black girl in a time when women of color were not allowed to join the WASP. There are two Asian women who joined the WASP, but black women were turned away. There’s a really poignant part in this book when Ida Mae is speaking with Jolene, where they wonder what being black and being a woman gets you. Ida Mae says, “You’re a woman, you get the short end of the stick. You’re black, you get the short end of the stick. So what does being black and being a woman mean?” and Jolene says, “You get hit with both ends of the stick.” I think this novel shows really good examples of how racism and misogyny intersect, and how, when it comes to women of color, there is no separation of racism and misogyny. They have to deal with both, and we’ve got to learn to respect that. Women are disadvantaged, yes, but there is privilege in being a white woman.
This shows us that this was a time when people were saying, “Maybe women can,” but this shows the side of that history that we don’t often see: “Maybe white women can.” Because of her desperation to join the WASP, this means that Ida Mae has to pass. She has a light complexion and her hair is curly but still rather smooth. There’s also a lot of intersecting conversations about colorism, because Jolene and Ida’s family have much darker skin than she does. Honestly, I can’t really discuss the details of race, because I’m white. I’m not really qualified to speak on this subject. I did feel, however, that Ida Mae’s treatment of Jolene when she comes home is absolutely bizarre and rather saddening. The whole time, Jolene seemed like a truly good friend, someone interesting and funny and no-nonsense. I think her criticisms of Ida Mae were often just, although I totally understand Ida Mae’s desire to be in the WASP and I admire her courage to go forth and do it. But when she tells Jolene that she’s just jealous because she’ll never pass, because she’s too dark to be anything but a housemaid? I thought that was truly just…awful. What right does she have to say that Jolene’s jealous? Maybe Jolene doesn’t want to pass. And Ida’s too stubborn to admit her wrongness. She ends up writing a letter to Jolene (I suppose to apologize) but we never see the contents, and Jolene doesn’t respond. It seems to end with her accepting that their friendship is over, “because they have nothing in common now,” but it was just confusing for me. If I’m wrong here, please let me know! As I said, I’m not qualified to speak about the racism experienced in the book. But I did think there was a measure of unfairness in Ida Mae’s treatment of Jolene.
I did really like Ida, though. She was interesting, ambitious and she was kind but not a pushover. I understand that she’s young and she spends the whole novel trying to find herself, trying to discover who she is and where she belongs in the world, but the conclusion of the novel was super lackluster. Ida Mae talks about finding herself, knowing who she is, but I didn’t see any of it, you know? She just said it. The ending felt rushed, and there was no real closure to any of the plotlines. Now, sometimes I don’t mind this, but for the novel to be really “complete” I feel readers need to know how Ida Mae’s life went, if she ever got back in touch with Jolene, how Walt reacted to her letter, if she ever told Lily, how her relationship with her family was after she made her choice…there’s a lot of things that could’ve been, and probably needed to be, resolved. I enjoyed the camaraderie between Ida Mae, Patsy and Lily. They stuck up for one another and I felt that they truly cared deeply for each other, and that warmed my heart. I was struck so hard by Patsy’s death! I felt that the death scene was a little…well, funny, to be honest, though. Something about it was so dramatic I had to laugh, even though I cried because she died! Also, I enjoyed the fact that Patsy probably knew about Ida Mae’s race. I kind of wish we would’ve seen Lily finding out, just to know if Lily was a true friend or if, in the end, race really did matter. It wasn’t necessary, but it would’ve made for a really interesting interaction. Another note: Lily’s pregnancy. I felt like it was a little…I don’t know. I didn’t like the whole “well, you’re married, that’s what married women do! Have babies!” it felt a little…irritating. It isn’t a big issue but something about it sort of rubbed me the wrong way.
At first, Smith’s writing didn’t capture my attention, but as the novel got into the swing of things I really found myself enjoying her writing. It felt pretty authentic for a girl of Ida Mae’s age, and there was a sort of vulnerability to it, a heartfelt quality, that made it easy to sympathize with Ida and really feel like you’re there with her on her journey. I liked her relationship with her family, and I felt that all of the relationships were really well developed. I liked her relationship with Walt, but I felt something was missing in it; not the chemistry, but something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. Altogether, it’s quite good and an excellent depiction of racism and misogyny (and how they meet), but I did feel there was something that was just…missing. An element that could’ve tied it together. It seemed like, right when Ida Mae finally got into the action of being a certified WASP, there were a lot of time skips. Still, though, recommended!